It’s time for the CBC to think out­side the box

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - BRAD OSWALD

NO one seems to know what the CBC will be in the aftermath of its lat­est fi­nan­cial im­plo­sion. What’s cer­tain, how­ever, is what it won’t be: the same old CBC. Sim­ply put, it can’t be. Through years of di­min­ish­ing bud­gets, de­clin­ing fi­nan­cial for­tunes and round af­ter round of lay­offs and pro­gram­ming cuts, var­i­ous regimes at the pub­lic broad­caster have tried hard to main­tain a CBC that was a slimmed-down and tight­ened-up ver­sion of what it has al­ways been. Those days are gone. With the loss of NHL tele­casts as a rev­enue en­gine that al­lowed CBC to me­an­der cre­atively through other parts of its sched­ule, com­bined with ever-dwin­dling fund­ing sup­port from a federal govern­ment that clearly views CBC with scorn, the broad­caster’s English TV ser­vice finds it­self at a mo­ment of cri­sis un­like any it has ex­pe­ri­enced in re­cent years. CBC will still air Hockey Night in Canada for the next four (or per­haps more) years, but it will de­rive no rev­enue from the broad­casts. It will serve only as a lin­ger­ing con­nec­tion to CBC’s past iden­tity and a pro­mo­tional plat­form in which to advertise other shows on its sched­ule. So, if it’s not go­ing to be the hockey net­work, what will CBC be? There needs to be some­thing, or things, in its sched­ule that will make it a chan­nel that in­ter­ests TV view­ers. For most Cana­di­ans, the re­cently can­celled Arc­tic Air, Cracked and Bat­tle of the Blades were not those things. Nor, for that mat­ter, are such re­newed CBC prop­er­ties as Heart­land and Mr. D and Mur­doch Mys­ter­ies. Dur­ing this spring of up­heaval and down­siz­ing, CBC brass have trum­peted such new ti­tles as Schitt’s Creek, a new com­edy star­ring old SCTVers Eu­gene Levy and Cather­ine O’Hara, and Strange Em­pire, a dark, se­ri­al­ized Old West drama, as the type of pro­gram­ming that will help de­fine a “new” CBC. Whether one or both will be­come “tent­pole” shows that lure masses of new view­ers into the CBC fold re­mains to be seen. Go­ing two-for-two on hit­series launches is highly un­likely, but it would cer­tainly be a big help. What the CBC needs more than any­thing else is to have people care about what it’s broad­cast­ing on TV. And to do that, the CBC needs to be some­thing other than what most folks ex­pect the CBC to be. Here are a few things which, in one ob­server’s opin­ion, the pub­lic broad­caster must and must not be as it moves into its un­cer­tain fu­ture: It must be: A des­ti­na­tion for view­ers. As the search for a new iden­tity, CBC pro­gram­mers would be wise to con­sider the game plans em­ployed by sev­eral U.S. ca­ble net­works whose for­tunes have risen sharply dur­ing the past decade. FX net­work trans­formed it­self from a stale old-movie chan­nel to a cre­ator of note­wor­thy orig­i­nal pro­gram­ming, start­ing with The Shield and fol­low­ing with boundary-push­ing ti­tles such as Nip/Tuck, Res­cue Me, Sons of An­ar­chy, Jus­ti­fied and Amer­i­can Hor­ror Story. AMC got into the orig­i­nal-con­tent game with Mad Men, then fol­lowed up with Break­ing Bad, The Walk­ing Dead and Hell On Wheels. The Starz ca­ble net re­branded it­self as an orig­i­nal-con­tent pro­gram­mer with Spar­ta­cus, Magic City, Boss, Da Vinci’s Demons and Black Sails. These days, net­works are de­fined not just by the shows, but by the kinds of shows they carry. CBC needs ti­tles that ex­cite view­ers, shows that people talk about as “CBC” shows. It must not be: Safe. Be­cause of its “all things to all people” man­date, CBC has rarely been in­clined to chal­lenge or risk of­fend­ing its view­ers. To be part of the wa­ter-cooler con­ver­sa­tion these days, how­ever, a “des­ti­na­tion” net­work has to pro­vide boundary-push­ing shows that deliver “Did you see that?” mo­ments. Put it this way: while shocked view­ers were try­ing to wrap their heads around Game of Thrones’ Red Wed­ding episode last sea­son, it’s un­likely that their TV chat­ter turned to what hap­pened on that week’s Heart­land in­stal­ment. It must be: A des­ti­na­tion for con­tent cre­ators. By cre­at­ing one, then two, then an ex­pand­ing ros­ter of orig­i­nal shows that ex­pand the bound­aries of TV drama and com­edy, net­works like FX, AMC and Starz, along with pay-TV heavy hit­ters HBO and Show­time, have be­come out­lets with whom the bright­est cre­ative minds want to do busi­ness. There’s re­ally no such safe har­bour for big TV ideas in Canada these days; CBC should seek to make it­self one. It must not be: All things to all people. The no­tion of re­flect­ing Canada to Cana­di­ans was a no­ble goal — and, per­haps, a nec­es­sary man­date — for the pub­lic broad­caster back in the three-chan­nel, over-the-air, pre-ca­ble TV era be­fore dig­i­tal com­pres­sion, chan­nel ex­pan­sion and multi-plat­form con­tent de­liv­ery al­lowed ev­ery Cana­dian to find his or her in­di­vid­u­al­ity re­flected in the con­tent sources of their choos­ing. CBC can’t be ev­ery­thing to ev­ery­one any­more, be­cause the pop­u­la­tion is too di­verse, the man­date is too broad and the com­pe­ti­tion is too fierce. It needs to forge a new mis­sion state­ment and then pur­sue its amended goals with fe­roc­ity and courage. It must be: Bril­liant, fru­gal and bril­liantly fru­gal. How­ever its fu­ture un­folds, CBC is not go­ing to have the bud­getary might to cre­ate the next Game of Thrones or Amer­i­can Hor­ror Story. But big TV suc­cess doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily de­pend on fat bud­gets; in fact one of Cana­dian TV’s big­gest-ever hits, Trailer Park Boys, was cre­ated on a shoe­string budget, but found a cre­ative way to turn the ab­sur­dity of Cana­dian TV’s fund­ing sys­tem into the show’s cen­tral low-budget con­ceit. TPB looked cheap on pur­pose, and fans loved it. It isn’t a gim­mick that could work a sec­ond time, but its suc­cess shows that un­con­ven­tional think­ing can yield un­ex­pected re­sults. It must not be: Scared. At least, not outwardly. These are the most un­cer­tain times the pub­lic broad­caster has ever faced, so fear is bound to be wide­spread through­out the or­ga­ni­za­tion as budget cuts are fi­nal­ized, re­dun­dancy notices are sent out and those left in the CBC’s em­ploy fig­ure out what to do next. But the people set­ting the new di­rec­tion must act with pur­pose and ag­gres­sion rather than fear and the ba­sic de­sire to pre­serve what re­mains. It must be: Will­ing to take BIG chances. In do­ing so, the CBC is bound to suf­fer some big fail­ures on the way to achiev­ing the big suc­cesses it needs to sur­vive, but a few high-pro­file pro­gram­ming dis­as­ters aren’t nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing if they’re part of a process. Get Cana­di­ans talk­ing about the CBC one way or an­other. Get them tun­ing in to see what the fuss is all about. And then — with one great show, then a few, and then a ros­ter — give them a rea­son to stay. What will the CBC be? In or­der to sur­vive, some­thing other than what we know as the CBC.


Heart­land has been re­newed for an­other sea­son of drama and in­trigue on the ranch, but it’s hardly must-see TV for most Cana­di­ans.

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